Excellent summation of the career of the Galaxy’s Landon Donovan from the Associated Press:
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Landon Donovan turned inward, trying to find out who he is.
He was a joy-filled 20-year-old in 2002 who helped lead the United States to its best World
Cup finish in 72 years, filled with optimism and thoughts that one day he and his teammates could lift the gold trophy above their shoulders.
Four years later, it was more like world on his shoulders than the World Cup, his mind weighed down by the expectations his precocious talent had created.
Soccer had become the burden of his life instead of the passion.
Now, two weeks from his third World Cup, he sounds at peace. With the demands, with his
talent, and with himself. It’s been a long road.
“It started eight years ago on July 4, after an LA Galaxy-San Jose Earthquake game where I met my now ex-wife Bianca, who has taught me more about myself than I’ve ever known, and continues to do that,” he said. “And that was the beginning of it all.”
In addition to being the top American soccer player, he’s the most well-spoken, a critical
analyst of himself and the game. What other player would credit his growth to his former wife, Bianca Kajlich, and speak of her so glowingly?
“Bianca is an actress and if any of you know what that life is like, it can be miserable at
times, and she has fought very hard for everything she has gotten,” he said. “And I, on the
other hand, have been pretty blessed and fortunate with the ability that I’ve been given and also the opportunities I’ve been given. And when you get that perspective and realize that you can’t take things for granted, it hits you real. It hits you hard when it comes from your wife and your best friend.”
Setting records with 42 goals and 42 assists, he already is the most accomplished offensive player in American national team history even though he’s just 28. Yet, much of the reputation he made by scoring twice at the 2002 World Cup was unmade when he virtually disappeared at the 2006 tournament, unwilling to get into the flow of the game or even to want the ball.
He was unsure of his place on the team, uncomfortable leading in a group that included Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride. No longer the just-past-teenage star who was selected MVP of the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship, he was stranded between the goalposts of youth and maturity.
“Landon was in a tough situation. In 2006, we didn’t have quite the leadership we needed,”
said Bruce Arena, the former national team coach who now leads Donovan’s Los Angeles Galaxy. “One of Landon’s faults in he’s in some ways a little too intelligent.”
Back then, Donovan needed to be content to perform. When he wasn’t in a good frame of mind off the field, it showed on the pitch.
“I think Landon kind of shuts down as a person when he’s not happy,” Kajlich said during
qualifying in 2005.
He struggled to gain acceptance as a top club player, and that caused him to go back and forth across the Atlantic in search of satisfaction.
Although he signed a six-year deal with Bayer Leverkusen as a 16-year-old in 1999 and left California for Germany, he didn’t play a game in two years and was loaned to the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS in 2001.
He rejoined Leverkusen in January 2005 and made nine appearances, but was unhappy being so far from Kajlich. He lasted just two months on his second stint in Europe and returned to Major League Soccer with the Galaxy.
Europe stint No. 3 was just as unrewarding. He was loaned to German power Bayern Munich in January 2009 and failed to score in six competitive matches. Listening to Juergen Klinsmann, Bayern Munich’s coach at the time, Donovan was given a mental hazing by Bayern’s stars.
“They don’t tell you, you know, ‘Good to have you here, you know. We give you the starting
spot.’ They tell you the opposite,” Klinsmann said.
Instead of three strikes and you’re out, Donovan returned to Europe for a fourth time when he was loaned to Everton this January. The culture and the soccer were more to his taste (even if he cold, cloudy weather was not). The Toffees were 5-7-7 when he joined, and he scored two goals in 13 games, getting voted player of the month for January. Everton finished its Premier League season at 16-9-13.
“Absolutely outstanding,” Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson said. “I think they wanted him to stay but the agreement was he had to go back.”
Support from his teammates in England was key.
“When I went to Everton, there was immediate respect, and that was eye-opening for me, because I had never experienced that in Europe,” Donovan said. “I’ve always been pretty confident, but knowing that you can play against the best players in the world, week in, week out is a big boost. And that for me was the biggest thing.”
And when he went back to the Galaxy, he played some of his best soccer. With an impact far larger than his 5-foot-8 frame, he had an MLS-leading nine assists, helping the Galaxy to a 7-0-2 start before he reported to the national team. Even before the latest loan, he made peace with David Beckham following his critical comments about the English star in a book last year.
Donovan took over from Becks as the Galaxy captain. And, helped by Donovan’s distribution skills and overall influence, Edson Buddle became MLS’s leading scorer this season with nine goals in nine games. After not playing for the national team for seven years, he made the World Cup roster this week.
“I think that there were a lot of expectations placed on him and in retrospect he realized
that he didn’t know how to properly handle those expectations,” said Donovan’s longtime agent, Richard Motzkin. “How he worked through that with David and with his teammates and sort of reinstated himself as a leader of Galaxy was a very important time last summer.”
Donovan had wanted to be a leader on the national team when Bob Bradley replaced Arena as coach in December 2006. He even told the new coach he was ready and willing.
He now thinks he was being presumptive.
“Looking back now, I realize that I wasn’t ready for that, and he probably saw that, too,”
Donovan said. “And so it takes time to learn those things. And for me, I want to earn it. I
don’t want to be given anything because I have played in a lot of games or I have a lot of experience. I want to earn it, and he’s made me earn it, and it feels better that way.”
Donovan is part on an American trio going to its third World Cup, joined by old buddy DaMarcus Beasley and Steve Cherundolo. In examining his head and heart, Donovan determined those were the keys for him, not his feet.
“I am who I am as a player now. I’m not going to learn how to shoot the ball better in the
next few years. The biggest improvement I’ve made has been mentally,” he said. “At 20, it was youthful exuberance and naivety and literally just playing every day because you loved to play every day. Now there’s more responsibility.
“In my opinion there’s also greater opportunity, and I enjoy the challenge of that now. In
2006, that became I think burdensome because I wasn’t ready for it, and now I’m ready for it. And I’m really excited for it.”
Motzkin’s mother was a psychoanalyst, and he thinks therapy helped Donovan learn about
himself. The struggles of the past few years have brought about a change.
“It’s made him appreciate and regain a love for soccer and a desire to really appreciate what he does for a living, and that every game is meaningful,” Motzkin said.
Donovan agrees that therapy, in part, helped him find contentment.
“I’m more real than I was. I’m more centered, and those things give you confidence, but also ease that whatever comes you’re going to be OK with,” he said.
Kajlich seems to be the key.
“Every comment I get when I would tell people I was going through a divorce was, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ And it’s not always the case that it has to be so sorry,” he said. “Sometimes you
learn more from those moments than anything, and for me certainly that was the case.
And it doesn’t have to be ugly. It doesn’t have to be nasty. It can be helpful and you can grow from it, and that’s what we both took out of it.”
Now he says he’s in the right frame of mind. When he takes the field, the rest of his life
gets put on hold instead of holding him back.
If the United States is to advance past the first round and make up for its awful exit of
2006, Donovan must lead the charge, starting June 12 against England.
“I changed the way I look at my career, the way I play,” he said. “I would almost say I’m a
180, that things have changed completely in almost a 180 from where I was four years ago.”
His list of changes goes on and on.
“Mentally, physically, from a motivation standpoint, understanding what it all means, the
importance of it, putting my career in context and understanding how important this tournament is,” he said. “A lot of things.”